Sermon for the second Sunday in Christmas
We’ve just heard read aloud what in the Gospel according to John serves as a nativity story. There is in John’s telling no mention of Bethlehem or of a baby in a manger, and in fact, all of fifteen verses later a very adult Jesus will appear at the Jordan River, where John the Baptist is preaching of the coming of the promised one of God. And yet this really is a gospel passage for the season of Christmas, in which we celebrate the Incarnation—the enfleshment—of God in time and history.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
By launching his gospel with these words, John is warning his readers that the Christ we will meet in this book is anything but a contingency plan on the part of God, designed to deal with the problem of human sin and brokenness. From the very beginning, the Christ—the second person of the Trinity—has been at work, for “not one thing came into being” without him. He is and always has been life and light for the world.
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And yet in its lostness the world was dying without his close presence, without his light. And so, John tells us, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Or as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” He lit up the neighborhood, in fact, which wasn’t always welcomed by the neighbours: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
These are important words to hear at Christmas, a season so often derailed by a kind of sentimentality that can lull us into forgetting what was at stake in the Incarnation. As N.T. Wright observes, “Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place,” and by this Wright is pointing to the modern tendency to all be very kind and charitable for a week or so each year, and to try to fashion our ideals more in accord with Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (“God bless us all; everyone” as Tiny Tim exclaims at the story’s end) rather than in the more revealing light of the gospel stories. And so Bishop Wright continues, “Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are.” (N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth)
During the final week of Advent I came across an essay on light by the photographer Krystyna Sanderson, in which she offers some quite remarkable observations about the play of light and darkness in her photographic work. “I love the power of light, its presence,” she writes. “When light meets dark, it has enormous energy. It rushes in, it fills darkness, it takes over.” “I find the process of working with light and darkness extraordinary,” she continues. “The spiritual aspect of photography—making the invisible visible—is close to miraculous.” And then this: “I find working with light as a photographer to be the most incredible partnership with God.” (Sanderson, “Light,” in It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God)
And yet language of light and darkness needs to be used with care; something that preachers and theologians in the African-American church tradition have pressed upon the wider church. In 1998 Catherine (whose heritage is African-American) and I were both delegates from our diocese to the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, and on the Sunday morning our diocesan group was invited to join a local congregation for worship. At communion time we were standing in line in the aisle, waiting to receive the bread and wine, and the church choir began to sing a hymn that had a repeated chorus:
“Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow.
Wash me, Jesus, and make me whiter than snow.”
After about the tenth repetition of this chorus, Catherine turned to me and whispered, “But I don’t want Jesus to make me whiter than snow…”
Sometimes the language of darkness and light easily makes the jump toward a kind of latent racism, in which Africa is the dark continent, and people with dark skin are seen as inferior to the light skinned. Against this it is important to realize that Jesus himself was a Middle Eastern Semitic man—dark skin, dark hair and eyes—and maybe to remember the defiant words of the beloved young woman in the Song of Solomon, who boldly proclaims that having worked tirelessly in the sun-drenched vineyards of her family, “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem” (Song of Solomon 1:5)
No, in the Gospel according to John, when he is working with this language of light and darkness, he is speaking metaphorically about a spiritual reality. And so in her essay on light, Krystyna Sanderson emphasizes that, “the light that Jesus brings shows things as they are.”
“It strips away the disguises and concealments. It shows things in all their nakedness. It shows them in their true character and their true values. That is why it is difficult to be in the light of Jesus. That light reveals our faults, our sins. When the light of Christ exposes who we really are, we may not like what we see.”
As so many discover during the course of John’s gospel that to be so exposed can be a pretty disarming experience. It is what the Pharisee Nicodemus realizes when he comes to see Jesus—not incidentally by the cover of the night—and it is what the Samaritan woman discovers when she has her conversation with Jesus at Jacob’s well. These two characters find themselves naked and exposed in the light of Christ, yet as the narratives unfold it becomes clear that their naked vulnerability is the beginning of their freedom. But his light is also what drives those from his own religious tradition to collude in order to have him killed, and it is what so troubles Pontius Pilate in that atrocious excuse for a legal trial.
Yet even that violence is ultimately exposed as powerless, for in John’s telling at the very moment of his death Jesus cries out “It is finished,” meaning not that it is all over, but instead that it is completed and accomplished. It may look to be the most evil and hopeless of all days, but no. It is accomplished. And of course, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” As we heard proclaimed tonight “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
So here’s the invitation on this second Sunday in Christmastide, when symbols of light and life are all around us in this church. Do we dare to stand in openness and naked vulnerability in the light of Christ? To see ourselves with a stark and revealing clarity, and not run from the light? To embrace what we heard read from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and to know ourselves as the adopted children of God, “no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir,” able to call out to God not in fear or shame, but with the words “Abba! Father!”
The light that is the incarnate God—God in the neighborhood—“shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Could not overcome it. Will never overcome it. In that is the deepest hope of Christmastide. Amen.